We caution every reader to not make end-of-season conclusions after the first contest. Tennessee’s 31-27 win over South Carolina on Saturday showed off a lot of improvement in certain areas of the team, while also not delivering answers to many of the questions that arose in the offseason. This is to be expected when the team didn’t even get to run many scrimmages due to a COVID outbreak.
But much like the stock market, you could still take what you saw in the early stages and try to spot any long term trends that might arise. Certain aspects might not be at the level you think they will be...but that’s the point of the investment!
After the win over South Carolina, we looked over the tape again (admittedly no All-22) and spotted some interesting developments.
Pass rush will maintain from last year/improve
If South Carolina had a weaker line, I would say to be skeptical here. But the Gamecocks were fairly optimistic about the line heading into this season, with head coach Will Muschamp referring to it as “This is our best offensive line we’ve had since we’ve been here,” They have legit talent at the tackle position, and their coach Walford is respected.
Despite this, Tennessee did well at forcing Collin Hill to make tough throws. Deandre Johnson led the charge with 2.5 sacks, but guys like Tyler Baron and Kivon Bennett had encouraging plays. I wouldn’t necessarily give the defensive front an A in this game—but a solid B is appropriate. That’s a good grade when you consider they lost their best pass rusher to the NFL, were missing arguably their best linemen in Darel Middleton, and had to start off against an offensive line that had multiple good options at tackle. A good pass rush can open up a defensive playbook more than almost any other benefit.
Henry To’o To’o is best player on the team
The sophomore linebacker has played all 13 games in his college career, and he has already shown himself to not just be one of the best linebackers in the SEC—but one of the best linebackers in the country. He followed up a great 2019 with a fantastic performance against South Carolina to start 2020.
Everyone will focus on the Pick-6 (certainly a top-10 highlight of the week), but upon rewatch, To’o To’o’s discipline and energy was unmatched. Even if he isn’t making the splash play, he is around the ball or helping spring someone from a block. There are even a few clips where he loses the battle at the start of the play, but then makes up for it with a solid recovery.
Offensive line improvement
Consider this a soft “Buy” rating. They protected Guarantano well, and a few plays where he felt pressure were arguably more his fault than anything the Gamecocks did. The penalties at the end were terrible, but they did make some holes to help seal the game.
I’m going to wait on buying or selling this aspect of the team until we see more results. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney seemed especially pass-happy on Saturday, and the run plays were a bit mixed overall. Ideally, they should show a bit more against Missouri next week. If they go out and repeat the same performance, I will wonder if they’re a bit gun shy about committing to the ground game.
Jarrett Guarantano improvement
He is who we thought he is. The fifth year Senior struggles to find any sort of consistency, often following up bad overthrows with impressive touch passes, and vice versa. Here’s the question I kept asking...if Guarantano hits open receivers, how much does Tennessee win by? Because quite honestly, it had the potential to be a blowout.
Instead, it came down to the final minute of gameplay.
Games can be won (or lost) on the margins, and Guarantano’s inability to be more than average has gotten this offense off rhythm. It’s beyond disappointing to see the Volunteers rack up yards quickly, average over six yards per play, get receivers running open in space, only for the ball to reach a lucky fan in the 4th row.
It’s tough to be completely down on the guy, because he did protect the ball better than he has in the past. The overthrows also looked like they were the right decisions—he just didn’t finish.
Frankly I don’t see a huge improvement coming. This is what to expect. He will be masterful some drives, incredibly frustrating the rest.
WAIT IT OUT
Wide receiver depth
Josh Palmer is undoubtedly the No. 1 receiver right now. That has not changed. Brandon Johnson has seemingly transformed into a big-play threat, which is encouraging.
Beyond those two, it’s a bit more of a mystery than what you want. Velus Jones Jr. had a couple of nice plays where he showed off his speed, and he could be a nice gadget player. But as an actual route-running receiver option, it’s still questionable.
Upon rewatch I actually think Ramel Keyton did better than his stat line showed. There were a couple of plays where Keyton got past their safeties and looked prime for a huge gain, but Guarantano missed him. Even one of these catches makes a huge difference in how he is perceived after the game.
I expect to see more freshman receivers come in and work their way into the offense. In the meantime, a trio of Palmer-Johnson-Keyton should be able to keep the ball moving downfield. But the Volunteers will need other guys to step up before long if they want to take the offense to the next level.